Friday, September 18, 2015

The Bread Season

I was thinking the other day about bread (maybe it was the smell from the local bread factory in my old home town). There are a lot of first grain harvest ceremonies from a lot of cultures in the late summer/early fall, but I'm not aware of a strong Scandinavian equivalent (if there is one, my Norwegian ancestors neglected to carry it with them to Texas).

Norway has such limited agricultural land (only about 3% of the total land mass, which consists largely or steep slopes and has heavy precipitation), and it also has a relatively short growing season due to the cold climates in  many areas. But none of this stopped Norwegians from loving their porridge and bread! (it just makes it that much more special...) That's why the height of festivity on Yule eve was a bowl of porridge. And pieces of bread have been found in Iron Age graves, possibly as left as burial gifts.

Porridge was the main means of consuming grains (initially barley and rye, and later wheat and oats) until early in the Common Era, when Norse mercenaries picked up baking tips from the Roman armies they served with and brought them home. And Scandinavians have been bread crazy ever since. In fact, it's said that Norwegians probably eat more bread than any other Europeans. They've even got some breads including potatoes, the labor-intensive lefse being the most notable.

My favorite, probably because it's the one my family always had on special occasions, is the humble flatbrød (flatbread), a type of traditional unleavened bread. It's dry, flat, and crispy, and we used to have it during the Yule season. It was actually originally the bread of farmers and peasants, and was a popular winter bread because you could make a great batch of it in the autumn and it would last through the winter (or even longer, if the weather was dry), stored in barrels or stacked on shelves. In fact, it's said by some that the older it is, the better it tastes (something I can't verify, because my mother would have never let me eat something that old).

The processes of both brewing and baking have something of the holy and mysterious about them, even today. One takes these seemingly inert ingredients, —grain and milk, honey and water, —and adds this magical substance known as yeast (in reality the living cells of a small fungus), and after a period of hours or months, the original ingredients have mysteriously changed, transformed themselves into something else—the bread rises, the ale or mead ferments. In earlier times, when fermenting was left to the mercy of wild yeast from the air, this change must have seemed even more miraculous.